Portraits as vehicles for reflection and change?


“Gazing into one’s own eyes is an interesting experience. I’d think there could be great therapeutic value in having some conversations with oneself, someone who appears to be a sympathetic listener (provided by a sympathetic photographer). “
This was Phil Easley’s response after I posted his portrait montage on my photography website.

I enjoy portraiture and have made single-image portraits for years. (See, for example, the soon-to-be released book about children who have a parent in prison, What Will Happen to Me?) Recently, however, I have been experimenting with multi-imaged portraits. The format was inspired by the photographic work of Egyptian photographer Nabil Boutros. As far as I know he has not used this format for portraits but I am intrigued by its possibilities for exploring personality. Choosing, cropping and sequencing images for this format is an interesting challenge and when it works, it seems to me to provide a more multidimensional impression of the person than a single image can accomplish. I also like the narrative quality it suggests.

In an earlier blog entry, Dialogical photography, I discussed the relationship between photographer and subject, about the mutual regard involved and the attitude with which we photograph. To remind those of us who are photographers of this, I suggested that it was a good experience for photographers to let themselves be photographed.

Phil’s comments above suggest an additional dimension: the possibility that our portraits may help us to see ourselves in a fresh and perhaps more objective way. We often look at portraits of others, trying to discern from their eyes and faces who they are. What if, as an exercise in self-reflection, we gazed at our own portraits, asking ourselves who this person is, who she or he seems to be, what others must see?

When I was working on my book Doing Life, one of the lifers took me aside and said something like this: “Do you know what it means for us to see a respectful portrait of ourselves? Most of us have no photos of ourselves since we entered the prison except for mug shots and awful Polaroid photos. Your photos have helped us see ourselves in a new way, with a new self-respect.”

I remember reading a case study book years ago that made quite an impact on me; unfortunately I have been unable since to identify the book or author. It was written by a therapist who worked with drug-addicted individuals in residential treatment programs. His basic technique was to turn up once a month with a tape recorder and interview his clients. On his return, the next month, therapist and client would listen to the last interview together and then pick up the conversation from there. Apparently the experience of hearing their own stories, in their voices, provided a kind of distance or objectivity that allowed the client to have fresh insights into themselves, often resulting in an improved ability to overcome their situations.

Perhaps portraits could do the same if we would take time, as Phil suggests, to use them as an entre to a conversation with ourselves.

While I am on the theme of portraiture, a second line of inquiry for me has been to work with portraits of friends over three stages of their life cycle. In the early 80s I asked some friends, most of whom were in their forties, to locate photos of themselves at age 12-14. (I chose this age rather than high school graduation photos because at this earlier stage, it seems harder to predict how we will eventually look.) I copied that photograph, then made a contemporary photograph that was in the same general attitude as the first one. Recently I have gone back to some of these individuals, creating a third portrait now that they are in their 60s or 70s, and mounting the three together. (See www.howardzehr.com.) I have also considered following up with interviews along the lines of what Phil suggested above: to ask the people to look at their own portraits at these three stages of life and reflect on who they were, who they are – how they have changed, how they have not changed.

I am fascinated by this latter theme: how we change, how we don’t change; what we try to change; what we can and cannot seem to change; how some people respond to suffering by growth and others seem to become stuck. It’s of obvious importance in the justice field.

In his book How People Change, therapist Allen Wheelis  writes, “In every situation, for every person, there is a realm of freedom and a realm of constraint.” We move between freedom and necessity. “We are wise to believe it difficult to change, to recognize that character has a forward propulsion which tends to carry it unaltered into the future, but we need not believe it impossible to change.”

Insight is important to personal change but it is not enough, he says. Another essential element is a tolerance of conflict: “…the greater our tolerance the more freedom we retain.” But real change is difficult and sometimes seemingly impossible.

Part of what makes this book so powerful is that he speaks not only as a professional therapist but out of his own experience of suffering and his struggles to overcome its effects. Eventually he discloses the suffering he experienced when abused by his father, the “steel fingers” that seem to grab his heart when memories of those experiences are triggered, and the difficulties overcoming the resulting patterns of thought and behavior. He identifies the pattern for himself: “The trigger for anxiety is the giving of an account upon which I may be judged.” He finds within himself “…a hidden conviction that my accounting will be inadequate, that the judgment will be adverse and beyond appeal.” He identifies the incidents that lead to this ongoing anxiety but that insight does not make the anxiety go away.

Both conditioning and freedom are true, he concludes; “…they coexist, grow together in an upward spiral, and the growth of one furthers the growth of the other. “ Paradoxically, “The more cogently we prove ourselves to have been shaped by causes, the more opportunities we create for changing.”

Changes in personality follow changes in behavior, he argues. “The sequence is suffering, insight, will, action, change. The one who suffers, who wants to change, must bear responsibility all the way.”

So how do people change? How much can they change? What does it take to change? Why do some people find themselves able to transcend suffering and challenge while others do not? How do victims become survivors? How do those who have offended manage to overcome that identity and behavior? Could photographic portraits be instruments to help us understand this better?